Designmatters students working on the White Sage Campaign

Featured Course

Designing for Green Justice: Centering Indigenous Land Access, Stewardship, White Sage Campaign

In this Designmatters studio, students have the opportunity to connect with this land and its First Peoples, the Tongva community. Together, we work with Indigenous land rights advocates and Tribal leaders to create innovative design solutions to help restore the native habitat, particularly White Sage, that center on First Peoples’ perspectives.

Interview with Joel Garcia, Instructor and founder of Meztli Projects, an Indigenous based arts and culture collaborative.

ArtCenter: First, can you share more about Meztli Projects and how it started?

Joel Garcia: Meztli Projects was started explicitly because of the inequities that permeate the arts and culture field. Native and Indigenous artists, especially youth or young artists, and organizations are the most underserved in our sector. We saw that these branded terms, like equity and whatnot, being implemented with surface-level strategies. Sure we saw themes, topics and issues impacting communities of color start to get highlighted more and more, but it was white-led organizations and white artists doing it and receiving funding. And artists like myself, we were solely asked to consult or contribute in ways where we didn’t have decision-making power. So we wanted to change that and model something different.

AC: What do you want the ArtCenter community to know about Meztli Projects?

JG: We hope that Meztli Projects serves as a bridge for folks to learn and understand Native and Indigenous communities, especially the First Peoples of this land, the Tongva Nation and community. We want the ArtCenter community to know about the many Tongva artists that are creating in contemporary ways, like Mercedes Dorame, River Garza, Weshoyot Alvitre, Elder Craig Torres, Samantha Morales Johnson; filmmakers Annie and Isaiah Mendoza; poets and musicians, like Kelly Caballero and Jessa Calderon; and many others. For us, it's important that we center First Peoples and use art-making as opportunities to spark healing, reconciliation, truth-telling and kinship.

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PHOTOS: Designing for Green Justice

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Elinda XiaoIllustration Student

AC: How would you describe this course to a prospective student?

JG: This class, although titled, Designing for Green Justice, is really an opportunity for students to connect to this land and its First Peoples from the perspective of the Tongva community. Additionally, we want students to use design to reflect back to the world their ideas to help steward this place we now call home. Green Justice can only be possible if informed and led by its First Peoples, and this class can be one starting point in that journey. It sounds grand to say this class will be life-changing for folks, but that’s what it offers.

AC: How did the idea for this course come about?

JG: Jessica Rath, who is co-teaching the class, proposed an initial idea for the course. But given how I and Meztli Projects work, I mentioned to Jessica and Jennifer May, executive director of Designmatters, that I could only participate if the Tongva community members I have been working alongside agreed to it. This is important because, as I've said, Green Justice must be informed by the First Peoples of a place. That’s a non-negotiable for me. Jessica met with us at a place in Altadena where the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa (pronounced Tar-a-haht pah-hava) Conservancy is situated, a swath of land that was just returned to the Tongva community. We went over the proposal for the class. And here we are.

AC: What inspired the direction you took with the curriculum for this class?

JG: The meeting with Samantha Morales Johnson and her mother, Kimberly Morales Johnson, who serves as the Tribal Secretary for the Gabrieleno (Tongva) Band of Mission Indians and as a commissioner for the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, informed the direction of the class. Through that meeting, the class focus was centered on the Protect White Sage campaign.

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For us, it's important that we center First Peoples and use art-making as opportunities to spark healing, reconciliation, truth-telling and kinship.

Joel GarciaInstructor and founder of Meztli Projects

AC: What are some of the assignments and materials that challenge students to break new ground creatively?

JG: We are in the early stages of ideation as students have spent the first few weeks immersing themselves in Indigenous-based teachings and hearing firsthand from folks, like Samantha, and our visit to the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy, as well as readings from Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi), author of Braiding Sweetgrass, and scholar Charles Sepulveda (Tongva/Acjachemen). Some of the early designs include using drones to map damaged areas to reseed them using this technology, educational tools for young students, augmented reality and interactive maps, among other more traditional print tools that share First Peoples’ perspectives for a non-Indigenous audience — which is critical to helping folks understand what's at stake and how they can help.

AC: What were some of the most surprising ways students responded to assignments?

JG: Some of the wonderful ways in which students have responded to the class and assignments have been the use of technology, such as interactive apps, to enhance public awareness about the issues that arise from the poaching of White Sage. For example, our society runs under capitalism — which isolates objects, such as plants, as commodifiable things to market, and in doing so, extracts that plant from its ecosystem. That removal and the physical poaching of plants damage the ecosystem as well. Green Justice, for the most part, operates as a response to capitalism. This class is a shift in language, perspective and approach. Our Tribal communities don't see themselves removed from the rest of the ecosystem, and so we don’t refer to plants as objects, but as entities. This language shift is speaking about plants as relatives, versus resources, and understanding that we are in relationships with plants and animals. In Green Justice, we need to decenter humans from what we think “justice” might be. Seeing students who are non-Indigenous understand and create from that perspective has been beautiful.

AC: What are some of the most important concepts and ideas you hope students take away from the experience/classwork?

JG: That, as artists, they can do significant things to help heal the harm colonization has inflicted on all of us, but especially First Peoples. As an artist who uses art to critically engage in social issues, I’ve seen artistic actions create large shifts in our society. The issue around monuments is an example for which I produced a zine on how to remove the Columbus statue at Grand Park. It forced elected officials to respond simply because it offered any citizen and resident the power to do what was right. Jessica and I hope they can see that their creative work — when done in service of, and in alignment with, marginalized and targeted populations — can achieve significant gains toward justice.

hand painting portrait of a woman

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